Kudos to the National Football League for fixing the whole "How do we make as many Week 17 games matter as possible?" dilemma. Sure, it took us a few extra decades to figure out (a) the last week should be reserved for divisional matchups only; (b) if there's a chance a team might not try because their fate was decided by an earlier game, remove that chance by scheduling those games at the same time; and (c) Sunday night's game should always have the highest cut-and-dry stakes (even if it means deciding that game at the last minute). But whatever. Now we can gamble in peace. Of our sixteen Week 17 games, thirteen matter in some way. That's pretty good.
For anyone expecting 4,000 words of poor gambling advice, semi-competent football observations and hit-or-miss jokes, I have some bad news: There's a chance I might rest my starters this week. I haven't decided yet. Stay tuned. In the meantime, let's bang out some Week 17 picks. As a special New Year's gift to you, I'm guaranteeing an 11-5-or-better week or your money back.
(Home teams in caps)
NOTHING WHATSOEVER AT STAKE
VIKINGS (-1.5) over Bears
It's the Prozac Bowl! The poor Bears fans are finishing off consecutive "What if Cutler hadn't gotten hurt?" seasons. Meanwhile, here were your past 23 months as a Vikings fan: an iconic stomach-punch playoff loss to New Orleans (one first down from the Super Bowl); the "Is Favre coming back or isn't he?" saga, followed by Favre's sexting scandal; the Kevin/Pat Williams Star Caps suspension; Brad Childress' creepy final season; the 2010 Vikes turning things around just enough down the stretch to screw themselves out of a top-five draft pick; Christian Ponder over Andy Dalton; the ongoing threat of the Vikes moving to L.A.; the Donovan McNabb era; their best cornerback (Chris Cook) getting knocked out for the season by an ugly domestic violence incident; a 2-12 start in 2011 highlighted by a story that Minnesota's defensive players were ignoring their coordinator; the whole "Wait, Joe Webb is better than Ponder, what the hell do we do now?" issue; then Adrian Peterson's blowing out his knee during the same Week 16 victory that cost them the Andrew Luck Sweepstakes. The good news? The Vikings figured out their stadium issues, which means I don't have to get any more e-mails like these
From Andrew in St. Paul: "If the Vikings move to L.A. I'm going to sit in my bathtub and listen to Against All Odds by Phil Collins for a week."
From Matt in Minneapolis: "You a-holes in L.A. can have the Vikings. We don't care enough to pay for a stadium, so you can assume the worst roster in the league with $100 million devoted to a running back. I'll also sell you my 1999 Ford Ranger with 200,000 miles on it for $40,000.
"Guy who would rather stay home and watch games on TV with my whiskey that doesn't include a 10% sales tax for another stadium for a shitty team."
Seahawks (+3) over CARDINALS
Big doings in the NFC West this season: It shed the "worst division in football" label (congrats to the AFC South, our new nadir!), gave us three quality home-field advantage teams (as well as a legitimate contender), submitted a few genuinely entertaining games and made us say things like, "You know, Tarvaris Jackson is actually decent!" and "Is it just me or is John Skelton the right-handed, not-as-religious, non-virgin, non-polarizing Tim Tebow?" I don't know who's winning this game, just that they will win by either one or two points.
EAGLES (-8.5) over Redskins
Lessons we learned from these two teams: Don't refer to yourself as the "Dream Team" assistant coaches apparently matter don't ever say the words "I think John Beck gives us the best chance to win" don't give someone a $100 million extension until he proves he can play 12 games in a row if you're a receiver looking for a contract extension, and you don't get it, acting erratically, skipping meetings and quitting on balls over the middle won't make you more money it's possible to fail 10 NFL drug tests and keep playing don't build both of your fantasy teams around Michael Vick (much less one of them) even if Mike Shanahan has won only 35 of his past 79 games, we're not allowed to mention this, and we need to keep referring to him as a good coach.
SOMETHING AT STAKE (JUST NOT OUR ATTENTION)
FALCONS (-11.5) Bucs
Lions (-3) over PACKERS
We know Green Bay's second string will put up a token fight, scare the Lions fans for about an hour and ultimately fall apart. We also know the Falcons (a classic "We look awesome against crappy teams!" team) will beat up the pathetic Bucs so badly that you'll see Raheem Morris working on his résumé in the second half. Final tally: Detroit ends up with the no. 5 seed; Atlanta ends up with the no. 6 seed; everyone who throws Atlanta, New England and San Francisco in a three-team, 10-point tease cruises to an easy holiday win.
Speaking of cruising, make sure you cruise through Grantland's "Looking Back at 2011" features for the year in music, movies, television, sports and porn, as well as who won 2011 and predictions for 2012.1 They banned me from appearing in the Year in Music piece because of some obscure "You're over 40, you have two kids, you're still on AOL and you use a BlackBerry Bold" rule, as well as the fact that I once mistakenly called Jay-Z and Kanye's collaboration album Use The Throne.2 Apparently there was a staff vote and everything. But they can't stop me from making 2012 predictions.
My big prediction: I predict that a well-known athlete will reveal that he's gay,3 followed by a couple of days of crazed stories/columns/TV arguments about what a big deal this is (only it isn't), followed by people eventually realizing that nobody cares and someone should have done this four years ago, followed by that same athlete inking a huge book deal and picking up more endorsements than he had before he came out. Barnwell said it's 50/50; I'm going with 90/10. I also predict that Spain will shock the United States for the 2012 Olympic hoops gold medal, David Stern will not retire (but U2 WILL retire), the podcast format is going to jump a level because cars will start having a wireless Internet signal, Steve Nash will get traded to the Portland Trail Blazers, ESPN will launch a second 30 for 30 documentary series in October, and Floyd Mayweather will finally fight Manny Pacquiao (and beat him). So there you go.
DOLPHINS (-3) over Jets
We'll remember the 2011 Dolphins fondly for becoming this year's "Sneaky-Decent Down The Stretch" team, covering eight of their past nine (and winning five outright) with two different coaches, reviving Reggie Bush's career, proving that Brandon Marshall could slap four relatively sane months together, and securing Matt Moore's "Everything That Ryan Fitzpatrick Gives You, Only Without the $59 Million Extension" status. Other things we'll remember fondly: Those two years when we mistakenly thought Rex Ryan was a good coach; those three years when we thought a team led by Mark Sanchez could make the Super Bowl; that Week 17 in 2011 when people stupidly believed that the Jets could sneak into the playoffs if three other teams lost (which allowed us to bet on a superior Dolphins team giving less than a field goal); these last 19 months before Rex Ryan replaces Warren Sapp on Inside the NFL and ruins that show.
TEXANS (+3) over Titans
I know, I know Tennessee needs to win (and needs Cincy, the Jets and either Denver or Oakland to lose) to make the playoffs, and Houston already locked up a no. 3 seed. But if you're the Texans, do you really want to limp into the playoffs having lost three straight and having failed to crack 20 points since Week 10? Don't you HAVE to try, if only for momentum's sake? Besides, are you really willing to accept a world in which this lousy Titans team sneaks into the playoffs? I'm grabbing the three points despite the fact that a banged-up T.J. Yates looked shaky enough these past two weeks that "Should we start Jake Delhomme?" actually became a sports radio topic in Houston. God, remember the days when people like Victor in Oregon sent me e-mails like this?
"Can't you see TJ Yates having a similar career to Tom Brady? Both had unspectacular careers in college, were drafted in the late rounds (Yates in the 5th, Brady in the 6th), and weren't expected to do anything in the NFL. Brady got his chance when Drew Bledsoe (a talented-but-flawed QB) had a season-ending injury. Brady then led his team to a Super Bowl victory and became one of the best QBs ever. Yates became QB because a talented-but-flawed QB (Matt Schaub) ahead of him had a season-ending injury. Both Brady and Yates inherited good teams who nobody believed in after their first-string QB went down. If Yates leads his team to a Super Bowl victory this year and becomes one of the best of all time, don't say I didn't tell you so."
(Sure thing, Victor.)
PLAYOFF SEEDING AT STAKE (BUT MORE IMPORTANT, THREE-TEAM TEASERS AND DRAFT-ORDER STATUS)
Bills (+11) over PATRIOTS
49ers (-10.5) over RAMS
The Pats wrap up a no. 1 seed with a win (I'm predicting a textbook Milton Berle "Pulling out just enough to win" performance); the Niners wrap up a no. 2 seed with a win (lock it down); and the Rams lock up "We'll get the no. 1 pick if Indy is dumb enough to win" status with a loss (and they'll lose). Consider it a one-week respite before you start getting hammered by questions like "How can the Patriots possibly make the Super Bowl with that defense?" and "Can the Niners really make the Super Bowl with Alex Smith and below-average receivers?"
That reminds me, I enjoyed this e-mail from Clayton in San Luis Obispo, Calif.: "I was listening to a White Stripes album with my buddy the other day when he made the comment that Meg White is a bad drummer. But if you ask anyone, they'll say that the White Stripes are a great band. Meg White never said she was a great drummer, however, she gets the job done. She is supposed to just lay a simple beat for Jack White and let him do the work. As long as she doesn't get in the way, the White Stripes are going to be doing well. It's the same way with Alex Smith and the Niners. He's not a great quarterback, but he's good enough to not screw up. He understands that the Niners defense is the key to San Francisco's success and all he has to do is keep it easy on them. He's not flashy, he's not supernatural, but he gets the job done."
(So if you're scoring at home, your second-best case for the 2011 Niners making the Super Bowl is that Alex Smith is the Meg White of drummers. Your best case? That they have a superb defense, superb special teams and a superb coach and if you're "superb" in three of the four relevant football categories, you always have a chance. To be continued.)
NOTHING MUCH AT STAKE (BUT A REALLY FUN GAME)
Panthers (+7.5) over SAINTS
My prediction for this one: The Saints go hard for a half and get everyone lathered up for the "Brees vs. Cam!" second-half showdown but with the Niners trouncing the Rams at the same time, New Orleans comes to its senses, resigns itself to the no. 3 seed and rests everyone in the second half. Good news for Cam's "Rookie of the Year" campaign, good news for Panthers +7.5, bad news for what could have been a fantastic game.
That reminds me
1. Sorry, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers I will remember the 2011 season for Cam and Tebow before anyone else. How great was Cam? He single-handedly made a forgettable/lousy franchise relevant/decent, swung about five million fantasy leagues,4 cruised to Rookie of the Year, revived Steve Smith's career, made those Wired for Sound NFL Films spots about 15.4 percent better and gave the NFL a young megastar with NBA-level charisma (wouldn't you put him up there with Durant, Rose and Griffin?). The best thing you could say about Cam: If you were watching football at a sports bar with tons of televisions, or visiting someone's house who had multiple TVs, Cam always seemed to end up on one of the prominent TVs no matter who he was playing. I love watching that guy.
2. Was it right that I didn't get excited about Drew Brees' new passing yards record? It reminds me of Oscar Robertson averaging a triple-double, or any of the Bonds/McGwire home run records; it's impossible to separate the era from the accomplishment itself. When Dan Marino threw for 5,084 yards in 1984, you were allowed to (a) pummel the QB every chance you had, (b) dive at the QB's knees as he was throwing the ball, (c) crush any receiver coming over the middle, and (d) jam receivers at the line by any means necessary, even if you had to use a crowbar or a chainsaw. It was impossible to throw for 5,000 yards back then. Only two other 1984 QBs cracked 4,000 yards (Neil Lomax and Phil Simms); nobody else cracked 3,800 yards; and only five guys even attempted 500+ passes (Marino's 564 was the highest). In 2011? Ten QBs will crack 4,000 yards; six will crack 4,500 yards; two (including Tom Brady) will crack 5,000 yards. Heading into Week 17, ten 2011 QBs have already thrown more than 500+ passes, with Brees leading the way with 622. It's a totally different game. Heading forward, we're going to see multiple QBs throw for 5,000 yards every season right?
STRANGELY, SHOCKINGLY MEANINGFUL
Colts (+3.5) over JAGUARS
I loved what happened with the Colts this month: They respect Peyton Manning so much that they're willfully killing any chance of the Andrew Luck era by winning these last three games. Even better, their fans are totally fine with it. How can you not root for this? Had the 1990 Celtics had a chance to lose enough games to land the no. 1 overall pick and some killer scoring forward, only we would have had to trade Larry Bird if we got that pick, you know what I would have done? Rooted for them to keep winning so Bird didn't go anywhere.
What's the point of sports, anyway? If someone like Bird or Manning passes through your life — something that might happen for a fan two or three times TOTAL in a lifetime — doesn't loyalty trump everything else? I never, ever, in a million years, would have wanted to watch Larry Legend play for someone else. It would have killed me. I'm sure Colts fans feel the same way about Manning, as do his teammates, which is why they are going to win this game. You watch.
RELATIVELY BIG STAKES
BROWNS (+4) over Steelers
BENGALS (+2) over Ravens
The stakes: If the Ravens win, they're a no. 2 seed; if the Steelers win and the Ravens lose, the Steelers are the no. 2 seed; if the Bengals win, they're the no. 6 seed, if the Bengals lose, they might end up being the no. 6 seed anyway. You're right, this is confusing. But it's a fascinating spot for the banged-up Steelers, who have the following two choices
1. Rest everybody, take the 5-seed, play in Oakland or Denver in Round 1 (two fairly easy games), and probably, in New England in Round 2 (a great matchup for them, and a team they already crushed this season).
2. Go all-out, try to win the game. If Baltimore wins, too, suddenly you blew your chance for a week of rest and the previous paragraph plays out anyway. If you get the no. 2 seed, you get a week off, then you host either Houston or Baltimore/Denver/Oakland in Round 2, followed by a road trip to New England (probably) in Round 3.
The Steelers CLAIM they're playing everybody. I think it's a smoke screen. If you can grab a week of guaranteed rest, you do it now. Of course, I think the Bengals are going to beat the Ravens (who have been frauds on the road all season), which means — if they rest everyone this week — Pittsburgh will be blowing a no. 2 seed. See, this is why it's confusing.5
RAIDERS (-3) over Chargers
Like everyone else, I'm rooting for the Raiders to somehow win the AFC West (they'd need to win here, then Denver would have to lose), then somehow win a home playoff game (couldn't you see Joe Flacco falling apart in Oakland?) and getting blown out in New England in Round 2 but not before giving up their 2013 no. 1 pick because of that "If Oakland wins one 2011 playoff game, Cincy gets a second first-round pick as part of Oakland's idiotic Carson Palmer trade" clause. This would be the funniest thing that happened this season, with the possible exception of every Caleb Hanie pass and Takeo Spikes somehow ending up on another losing team.6
Meanwhile, if Jon Gruden was ever coming back to coach, wouldn't it be for that Chargers job? Phil Rivers, Malcolm Floyd and Vincent Jackson as deep threats, Ryan Mathews as the Brian Westbrook-type back it's like a West Coast offense/warm-weather nirvana, and if that's not enough, he gets to live in San Diego, the most beautiful city in America. I can't handle San Diego — every time I'm there, I go into a deep funk and question every choice I ever made in my life. Why didn't I go to the University of San Diego for college or grad school? Why didn't I move there after college? Why don't I live there now? Why didn't anyone even tell me this stuff before I turned 30? San Diego is like the Fight Club of cities — everyone who lives there makes a pact not to tell anyone else how great it is so they can keep the housing costs down. (Note: Didn't work. It's superexpensive.) If San Diego got an NBA team, I would move there tomorrow and that would be that.7 How can Gruden resist that job?
Here's how this needs to play out: Norv Turner becomes the Jets' offensive coordinator; Gruden grabs the Chargers job; Ray Lewis retires after an emotionally scarring playoff loss in Oakland that also netted Cincy a second first-round pick from what was already one of the best trades of the past 20 years; ESPN's new Monday Night Football team becomes Mike Tirico, Ron Jaworski and Ray Lewis; everybody wins. Well, except Raiders fans.
BRONCOS (-3) over Chiefs
There's only one problem with the "Couldn't you see Kyle Orton getting his revenge against Tebow and the Broncos and knocking them out of the playoffs?" scenario. Hold on, I'll let you think about it. Mull it over. I bet you get it.
(Giving you a couple of extra seconds.)
(Twiddling my thumbs.)
OK, here's the problem: HE'S KYLE FUCKING ORTON! Have you watched him play????? You've watched him, right? He won six of his past twenty-seven games as Denver's starter. He's the master of the "Just when I thought we had some momentum, I can't believe Kyle threw that pick into triple coverage in the end zone" play. Now he's suddenly Liam Neeson flying to Europe to find his abducted daughter in Taken? We owe the word "revenge" an apology for daring to include it in the same sentence as Kyle Orton. Besides, in the words of Paul Crewe, we've come too far with this Tebow thing to stop now. For Granny, for Nate for Jesus let's do it.
GIANTS (-3) over Cowboys
I have this ranked over Broncos-Chiefs because of the history (Giants! Cowboys!), the time (Sunday night!), the quarterbacks (Eli and Romo!), the stakes (winner takes the NFC East, loser goes home and probably either fires its coach or shoots him behind the stadium) and the accumulated trauma from the 2011 season (it's almost a foregone conclusion that someone is losing on Sunday night in the most agonizing way possible).8 Which fan base is more likely to be traumatized on Sunday night? Well
• The Giants blew three seemingly easy 2011 home games in gut-wrenching, I-can't-believe-I-care-about-these-idiots fashion (Philly, Washington and Seattle). Their fans were also absolutely, 100 percent convinced that (a) their team had quit on their coach as recently as six days ago, and (b) these guys were total frauds.
• The Cowboys choked five different times (Jets, Lions, Patriots, Cards, Giants) in brutal defeats that elicited emotions ranging from "I knew we'd blow that game, but it still ruined my weekend" to "I'm starting to understand the chain of events that leads someone to try heroin."
Here's why I am grabbing the Giants: They do two things (throw the ball, rush the passer) better than Dallas does anything; Dallas beat San Fran in Week 2 and hasn't beaten a team better than .500 since; Felix Jones, Terence Newman and Jason Garrett are prominently involved; and finally, if your life depended on this game, do you really want to back Tony Romo's injured throwing hand outdoors, in cold weather, on the road, when it's attached to Tony Romo's body? That sounds more than a little risky to me. I'm laying the 3.
(And yes, I ended up playing my starters this week. Enjoy the New Year.)
Last Week: 6-9-1
Bill Simmons is the Editor in Chief of Grantland and the author of the recent New York Times no. 1 best-seller The Book of Basketball, now out in paperback with new material and a revised Hall of Fame Pyramid. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland. Follow him on Twitter and check out his new home on Facebook.
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